Creative Nonfiction: Lady, This is For You
By James Hanna
It usually takes something drastic to upset a person’s life. An earthquake, a fire, or a hurricane could potentially do the job. But my life was foiled by an incident that could hardly be called dramatic. It was derailed by an eighteen-year-old kid who, upon spotting a middle-aged woman walking her dogs in a local park, patted his crotch suggestively and shouted, “Lady, this is for you!” It was the kind of event that more often occurs when women walk past construction sites. If the woman is even remotely attractive, men wearing hard hats and steel-toed boots will typically shout lewd remarks. But cries like “Hey baby, wanna share my bologna?” do not have consequences. Women will dismiss these bon mots with either a laugh or an icy stare.
But a construction site was not the context in which the incident occurred. In this case, the jaunty pappagallo was not a hard-hat laborer. He was a Black kid on a work crew from the Indiana Penal Farm—a medium-security prison where I spent twenty years as an inmate counselor. And the object of his attention was, unfortunately, a White woman. Ironically, she was also the wife of the prison’s investigator, and she told her husband about the matter in a fit of indignation. The kid was removed from the work crew, placed in our lockup unit and scheduled for an institutional hearing on a charge of attempted rape.
When this matter came up for hearing, I was chairing the Conduct Adjustment Board—a three-member tribunal responsible for reviewing rule violations. We were sitting in the hearing room at the hub of the Special Housing Unit—a starfish-shaped building where unruly inmates were kept in solitary confinement. Seated behind a conference table, we gave due process to inmates, letting them tell their sides of the stories before reaching dispositions. Most of the cases involved fights between inmates or inmates possessing weapons or drugs. Never before had we had to rule on a charge of attempted rape.
I had three copies of the write-up, and I handed two of them to my comembers: Bob Brewer, a burly farm foreman with a goatee shaped like a spade, and Sarah Baumgardner, a correctional sergeant with blonde, disheveled hair. The kid had yet to be fetched from his cell because the range officers were serving lunch, so I took a couple of minutes to read the write-up out loud.
Date: June 30, 1998
To: Conduct Adjustment Board
From: Lieutenant Ron Cavanaugh, Facility Investigator
Re: DeShawn Jefferson, DOC 980562
Infraction: Rape (Attempted)
On June 28, 1998, at approximately 1400 hours, Marie Elizabeth Cavanaugh, a resident of Putnamville, was walking her two dogs in the Putnamville City Park. Present in the Park was Labor Line 9 under the supervision of Officer Billy Grimes whose statement is attached. Labor Line 9 was performing its usual duties of picking up trash and animal waste in the park.
Marie Elizabeth Cavanaugh was walking the dogs near the barbeque pits, approximately fifty feet away from where DeShawn Jefferson was picking up trash. At the above-mentioned time, DeShawn Jefferson stroked his crotch in a lewd and suggestive manner. At the above-mentioned time, DeShawn Jefferson stated clearly, “Lady, this is for you.” DeShawn Jefferson directed this remark to Marie Elizabeth Cavanaugh as there were no other females in the park at the time. DeShawn Jefferson clearly made the remark in reference to his penis because his hand continued to stroke his crotch as he made the remark. Officer Grimes immediately put DeShawn Jefferson in restraints to keep him from consummating his threat. Officer Grimes kept DeShawn Jefferson in restraints until he was picked up by our roving patrol and placed in disciplinary segregation.
Marie Elizabeth Cavanaugh was deeply shaken by the assault. Her statement is attached along with that of Officer Grimes.
The two witness statements seemed repetitious, so I did not bother to recite them as well. When I asked my comembers what they thought of the charge, they seemed wholly unimpressed. “Have you ever seen Cavanaugh’s wife?” Brewer snarled. “Hell, she’s gotta weigh two-hundred pounds. A little runt like DeShawn couldn’t handle that much puss.” Sarah remarked that DeShawn deserved only a switch upon his butt cheeks. She also told us that Lieutenant Cavanaugh had once tried to grope her tits.
Minutes later, a range officer herded DeShawn into the hearing room. He was a string bean of a kid serving time for selling meth, and he nervously tugged one of his dreadlocks as he stood in front of us. When I asked him why he grabbed his crotch and made that stupid remark, he said, “My road dogs dared me to do it, sir. They bet me a pack of Camels.” He assured us he was no Mike Tyson, having never raped anyone, and he said he regretted making the bet because his fellow inmates didn’t pay up.
I asked DeShawn to leave the room, so we could review the case. Rape is a Class A rule infraction—a very serious charge; it is punishable by a year in segregation and forfeiture of all good time earned. Convinced that DeShawn had told us the truth, I opened the Conduct Adjustment Board handbook and went down the list of infractions to find a lesser charge. The most minor rule violations were listed as Class D offenses, and there I found a more fitting offense: Making an Obscene Gesture. It was punishable by a loss of ten days of good time and thirty hours of extra duty.
“He did make an obscene gesture,” I conceded. “We could find him guilty of that.”
Brewer said, “If we don’t find him guilty of rape, it’s you who’s gonna get fucked.” He assured me that Cavanaugh would run to the superintendent, whine like a pampered brat and claim that I had let DeShawn get away with forcing himself upon his wife. As the chairman of the Conduct Adjustment Board, I was sure to be called on the carpet, and my career as a prison staffer would probably take a serious hit.
I considered this possibility and stubbornly shook my head. I had always prided myself on my independence of mind, so I was not unaccustomed to being stigmatized. Besides, I had not received a promotion despite my two college degrees—perhaps because these credentials did not cultivate boundaries. My career now smacked of stagnation—of ambition put on hold—and I often felt like a stranger who had invited himself to a dance.
I insisted we break the charge down to making an obscene gesture. Since my comembers both despised Cavanaugh, I was lecturing to the converted. “It’s still gonna be your ass,” Brewer said as he signed the disposition form.
When the range officer returned DeShawn to the hearing room, I asked him if he had anything else to say. He said, “I wanna apologize for playing the fool in that park. My mama, she done told me I should always respect a lady.”
“Ten days loss of good time,” I said. “Thirty hours of extra duty. That’s for making an obscene gesture. We found you guilty of that.”
“Sheeit,” said DeShawn. He looked stunned and relieved. “Lieutenant Cavanaugh ain’t gonna like you.”
Later, I reconsidered my decision, and I cursed my fastidious soul. Who was I to rescue a reckless kid from such monstrous stupidity? At least, I did not have to wait long for the matter to come to a head. An hour later, I was ordered to report to the superintendent’s office.
Earlier that month, I had attended an execution at the Indiana State Prison. My job was to visit death row, which had been placed under a protective lockdown, and to offer to counsel those residents traumatized by the event. I still recall the cry that rang out as I strolled up and down death row, the eerie call that preceded the miscreant taking his final steps. “Dead man walking!” a guard called out with such finality that my skin prickled as though it were crawling with ants and my heart almost froze in my chest. It seemed almost a redundancy when the condemned man shuffled by—his face was so vacant and waxy that he already resembled a ghost. As I walked towards the superintendent’s office, I remembered that terminal cry—an intimation that I too had defied mighty norms and was scheduled to meet my maker.
Upon entering the carpeted office, I stood as still as Lady Liberty. The superintendent was sitting behind his desk, reading the write-up report. He was a sixtyish man with a premature stoop and a shock of silvery-white hair. I had spoken to him only a couple of times since he rarely left his office.
When he finished reading the write-up, he looked at me intently. His face did not show disapproval so much as curiosity.
“Cavanaugh overreacted,” I said. “We convicted that kid by the book.”
He rocked back in his chair and his face relaxed into a grandfatherly smile. “Well, the lieutenant did seem out of sorts,” he said. “Mercy, he looked fit to tie. But what book would that be if you don’t mind my asking?” His voice was thin and nonthreatening, his eyes were limpid and kind, but his lingering stare was enough to suggest that I had crossed an invisible line.
“We were fair to the kid,” I insisted with waning certainty.
He gazed at me, still smiling politely—a smile that did not reach his eyes. “So I see,” he muttered, his voice empty of sentiment. “But were you as fair to our officers, sir, when you compromised our control—when you let the whole inmate body know we were willing to let this thing go?”
I attempted to speak, but he waved his hand as though bothered by a fly. “Forgive me if I sound rather blunt,” he said, “but the inmates outnumber us twenty to one. My goodness, they can take over the prison any time they want.”
If you’re not with us, you’re against us was the message in his eyes—an inference so primal I could offer no reply. His demeanor—that of a purist—afforded me no appeal, and I began to suspect that I had sought fairness on a wholly extrinsic scale.
Still, I insisted stubbornly that I had done the proper thing. “There wasn’t the slightest evidence,” I said, “that the kid was vested in rape.”
“Vested?” the superintendent murmured. “Sir, what do you mean by that? Are you saying the kid had no carnal intent when he accosted Lieutenant Cavanaugh’s wife?”
“I doubt it,” I said.
He folded his arms like a banker refusing a loan. “Do you doubt that criminals fib, sir? And do you think that Mrs. Cavanaugh lied? Might you have better resolved the doubt in favor of an officer’s wife?”
I made one last effort. “He’s just a dumb kid. He even apologized.”
The superintendent rose from his chair. He sat on the edge of his desk, gripping both sides as though he were perched on a towering precipice. “I daresay that poor woman was insulted enough without also being called a liar. If you don’t mind me speaking frankly, I believe you were out of line.”
“The kid meant no harm,” I insisted. “There’s no question of that in my mind.”
“So you say,” he muttered, letting go of the sides of the desk. He eased himself back into his office chair and again looked at me curiously. There was a timelessness to his gaze, deep history to his face. It was as though the shifts of a century had left him completely unfazed.
“I really don’t like to be rude,” he said finally. “My staff is like family to me. But ask yourself one more question, sir. Are you sure you belong in this place?”
As I left the superintendent’s office, my mind began to riot. Was temperance for gentler climates? I wondered. Was that tottery patriarch right? Should I have locked up that kid for a year to keep more dangerous inmates in line? Only then did I fully suspect the ramifications of what I had done. What if more radical inmates—the Muslims and Devil’s Disciples—took my laxness in enforcing the norms as a weakness in our ranks? Were they not political prisoners, so far as their dogma went? Were they not capable of attacking us like a shark that had scented blood?
What book would that be if you don’t mind my asking? These words carried a law of their own. I had no doubt that my sagging career had come to its logical end.
Months later, I better understood what Brewer had warned me about. At that time, I had left the penal farm, having tired of the Hoosier State, and moved to San Francisco to work as a probation officer. A comment from Brewer was all it took to trigger my departure. He said, “Churches and birches—nothing else grows in a town like Putnamville.”
It was by chance that I finally learned the full power of what I had taken on. I was channel surfing one night and discovered a movie called Birth of a Nation. Although made in 1915, the film had incredible cinematic techniques, and I watched it with fascination, never once leaving my chair.
The film tracks Southern Reconstruction following the Civil War and shows sexually-aggressive Blacks plundering a small town. The most pivotal scene is when a White girl leaves her family’s gutted plantation and traipses into the woods to fetch a pail of water. Alone in the woods, she is stalked by a White actor dressed as a Union soldier—an actor whose face had been blackened to make him look like a wild-eyed beast. When this goblin corners the girl at the edge of a towering cliff, she hurls herself to the rocks below to escape her imminent rape.
After watching the movie, I was struck by the depth of my naiveté. This film had not died in some archives—it was living to this day. How blind I had been when I let that kid off, how brazen, how sightlessly brave. How recklessly I had provoked trepidations beyond my power to tame.
No, I had not survived Putnamville, and my coltishness was to blame. It would take a quixotic more artful than me to impress his will on that town. What book would that be? This rhetorical question aggravates me still—yet I take a wicked delight at the thought that I had not kept that kid in a cell.
I will never return to Putnamville—I have no stake in that town—but I sometimes reflect on the vacuum my departure must have left behind. Who else will challenge that question? Who will stand up in my place? And who will wipe the blackness from that feral, leering face?
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His work has appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. He is also a former contributor to A Thin Slice of Anxiety. James is the author of six books, all of which have won awards. Global Book Awards recently gave his anthology, Fact Check and More Probing Tales, the gold medal for contemporary fiction.